Nirvana is not death, for death entails rebirth. Nor is it annihilation, which entails a being or essence to annihilate. Just as enlightenment expels all ignorance, so nirvana entails the end of all suffering. Suffering is intimately connected to birth, old age, sickness, and death of all kinds. Nirvana is a literal [there is no equivalent word for it as it is neither thing, nor place, nor state]. It is not merely the absence of suffering. Nirvana is to be experienced. Interestingly, it is not a noun (person, place, or thing) at all. Rather it is a verb inasmuch as one is "nirvanered" (nibbuti, cooled, calmed, quenched, cleansed). Just as there are phenomena in the world of daily experience, nirvana is the "unconditioned" and "deathless" element.
This is a deep and profound statement not amenable to intellectual investigation. Fortunately, it will admit of direct experience. Those nevertheless wishing to approach the matter through intellect will find Bhikkhu Bodhi's exhaustive treatment of the subject of nirvana in "The Buddha's Teaching: As It Is" very helpful. (Bhikkhu Bodhi is the greatest Buddhist scholar alive today; the audio CD may be purchased or is available free from BAUS.org).
- "The Buddha's Teaching As It Is" by Bhikkhu Bodhi (MP3)
(BuddhaNet) Ten audio lectures on the fundamentals of the Buddha's Teaching by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Buddhist scholar-monk. Lecture 6: "Nibbana (Nirvana)."
Nirvana is a reality that may be seen and touched. To glimpse it is to attain stream-entry, the first stage of enlightenment. The consummation is full enlightenment, but that takes two forms. The first is "with remainder"; the second, "without remainder." That is, one attains nirvana and the Five Aggregates continue. One is alive as before, experiencing the results and fruits (vipaka and phala) of karma without clinging to experience or identifying with it. Eventually, karma is exhausted, then at that point there is parinirvana, or liberation without remainder, without aggregates, without any further coming to be. English hardly has words for it. But it may be understood by many positive analogies given by the Buddha, which are not applicable to death. For example, nirvana is the unsurpassable:
- refuge (sarana)
When the Buddha Passed Away
Susan Elbaum Jootla (excerpts from Teacher of the Devas, BPS)
Devas and brahmas were active at several phases of the Great Passing — the Buddha's final entrance into nirvana away at Kusinara (modern Kushinagar, India) — as recorded in the Maha Parinibbana Sutta (DN 16). This event was not just the demise of a greatly revered being but it also represented the personal consummation of his teachings. It was the utter, permanent cessation of the aggregates of the one who discovered and taught the way to the end of suffering.
A short while before the Buddha attained final nirvana, he lay down to rest between two sal-trees. They began flowering profusely, out of season. After some time, the Buddha dismissed the monk who had been fanning. Then the Venerable Ananda, his devoted attendant [and cousin], asked him why he asked the monk to go. The Buddha replied:
"Ananda, the devas from ten world-spheres have gathered to see the Tathagata. For a distance of twelve yojanas around the Mallas' sal-grove near Kusinara there is not a space you could touch with the point of a hair that is not filled with mighty devas, and they are grumbling, 'We have come a long way to see the Tathagata. It is rare for a Tathagata, a fully enlightened Buddha, to arise in the world, and tonight in the last watch the Tathagata will attain final nirvana, and this mighty monk is standing in front of the Venerable One, preventing us from getting a last glimpse of the Tathagata!'" (DN 16.5.5)
Ananda, who had standing permission to ask the Buddha anything, next wanted to know what kinds of devas were around them. The Buddha said he saw lower devas who are "weeping and tearing their hair" in distress, moaning, "All too soon the Blessed One is passing away, all too soon the Well-Farer is passing away, all too soon the Eye of the World is disappearing!" But there were also devas "free from craving" (i.e., enlightened) who endured this patiently, saying. "All compounded things are impermanent — what is the use of this?" (DN 16.5.6).
After passing through the eight meditative absorptions (jhanas), the Buddha finally expired, attaining parinirvana, the immutable cessation of rebirth. At that moment the Earth quaked, as it does whenever buddhas pass away. The brahma Sahampati, who had entreated the Buddha to teach forty-five years earlier, spoke a verse as a short eulogy:
"All beings in the world, all bodies must break up:
Even the Teacher, peerless in the human world,
The mighty Venerable and perfect Buddha has expired."
Sakka repeated a verse of the Buddha's on the theme of impermanence. While Sahampati used conventional speech in adoration of the deceased Buddha, Sakka spoke in impersonal and universal terms. His verse makes an excellent theme for meditation and is often chanted at Buddhist funerals:
"Impermanent are compounded things, prone to rise and fall,
Having risen, they're destroyed, their passing is truest bliss" (DN 16.6.10).
All the "compounded things," which make up everyone and everything in all the world, come into being and perish. Only when they cease utterly never to re-arise ("their passing") can there be the perfect bliss, nirvana. These stanzas by the renowned brahma and the king of the devas show how a few beings existing on higher planes applied their insight into impermanence and suffering, even to the parinirvana of their teacher.
After they had honored the Buddha's body for a full week, the Mallas of Kusinara decided it was time for the funeral. They began to prepare for the cremation but could not lift the body and carry it out the southern gate of the city. Puzzled, they asked the Venerable Anuruddha what was wrong.
This great elder (or thera), renowned for his "divine eye," told the devotees that the devas had their own ideas of how to arrange the funeral. The deities, he said, planned first to pay "homage to the Buddha's body with celestial dance and song" and then take it in procession through the city of Kusinara to the cremation site. The devas intended the cremation to be at the Mallas' shrine known as Makuta-Bandhana. The Mallas were happy to accommodate their plans and proceeded unhindered to arrange the funeral as the devas wished.
Out of respect the devas participated in all phases of the funerary proceedings. It is said that "even the sewers and rubbish-heaps of Kusinara were covered knee-high with [celestial] coral tree flowers. And the devas as well as the Mallas... honored the Buddha's body with divine and human dancing and song."
They transported the body to the Makuta-Bandhana shrine and placed it there. They wrapped it many times in layers of fine muslin cloth, built the pyre of fragrant sandalwood, and placed the bier bearing the Buddha's body on top. But when the men tried to light the fire, it would not ignite. Again the reason lay with the devas.
Anuruddha explained that the devas would not allow the pyre to be lit until the Venerable Maha Kassapa arrived for the cremation. Once Maha Kassapa and the group of monks traveling with him had arrived and paid their last respects, the pyre blazed up spontaneously, burning until nothing but relics remained behind (DN 16.6.22-23).
Site of the Great Passing with a stupa (reliquary mound) and a tubular building housing a very large reclining Buddha statue, Kushinagar, India. The Buddha chose out-of-the-way Kusinara because it had been a significant site in prehistory. Through the efforts of the worldwide Relics Tour, Tibetan Buddhists hope to make it the most important Buddhist site in the world.